Oh what a difficult start to a list-making process. 1991, the year I was born, one filled with landmark releases and a general air of pop-cultural upheaval. The alleged death of hair metal, the rise of grunge and what the A&R suits would sooner or later pigeonhole as “alt rock,” the commercialization of what DIY punk bands had pioneered long before the term “indie” became the latest signifier of hipness — so many goings on and so many albums to choose from, to the point that selecting a favorite among them required a take-no-prisoners mentality and a great deal of arbitrary flip-flopping on the basis of some pretty nebulous criteria.
So what did I end up with?
Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus.
Those of you who have never heard of the record and/or the band probably scoffed at the title alone. Those of you who HAVE heard of them either scoffed knowingly or applauded in solidarity. This post might cater to the latter group, but if you disagree with my choice and are still reading to find out why, I’ll do my best to lay out my logic for you. Even better, I’ll do so using the other, potentially “superior” choices that I considered before landing on Claypool & Co.’s major-label debut…
First and foremost, Seas of Cheese is a hell of a lot more fun than a lot of the most influential/impactful releases from that year — including (but not limited to) Nevermind, Ten, and Metallica’s “Black Album.” It’s also more accessible and thus re-listenable (to me) than more underground gems like Loveless, Green Mind, and Screamadelica. It’s got all the instrumental prowess/weirdness of Blood Sugar Sex Magik without any of the fratty vibes, lyrical inanity, or dubious white boy hip-hopisms (i.e. the things that make RHCP RHCP). It’s every bit as heavy as Badmotorfinger or Use Your Illusion, but the songs feel new and alien and altogether less predictable by comparison. I won’t go into Achtung Baby because any U2 post-Joshua Tree is lost on me.
Without leaning too heavily on any one influence, Seas of Cheese plays like an unlikely intersection of Jerry Reed, Funkadelic, Black Sabbath, the Police, Rush, Frank Zappa, and Tom Waits (a fellow welder of sounds who makes a cameo on “Tommy the Cat”). The members of Primus — singer/basstronaut Les Claypool, guitarist Larry Lalonde, and the double-kick DaVinci that is Tim “Herb” Alexander — knew how to make this hodgepodge of ingredients cohere: they heard the similarities between, say, “Regatta de Blanc” and “YYZ,” or “NIB” and “Super Stupid,” and maximized them to the nth degree. They understood that the kind of storytelling native to country music would work in even the most gonzo of musical contexts because they’d listened to Joe’s Garage and Rain Dogs. Their collective sense of humor — or at least Claypool’s — led them to eschew convention and genre, resulting in an album that’s as silly as it is intense.
Much the same can be said for A Tribe Called Quest and The Low End Theory (also released in ’91), on which Q-Tip, the immortal Phife Dawg (R.I.P.) and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad brought jazz to hip-hop, sampling everyone from Art Blakey to Weather Report and even hiring the legendary Ron Carter (bassist for Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet) to lay down some live tracks. The result boasts all the amalgamated majesty and off-the-wall humor of Seas of Cheese and still ranks as an all–time classic, which is probably more than I can say for any of Primus’s albums, even though I will always cherish them on a personal level…
But eclectic tastes and oddball sensibilities will only get you so far; it’s having the chops to realize those ideas that makes all the difference. Both Primus and Tribe exemplified this maxim on their sophomore records — from Claypool’s ungodly slapping-and-tapping to Tip’s twofold rhetorical/syllabic acrobatics, you won’t find a more formidable realization of artistic intent anywhere in 1991. If you’re still not sold on my first choice — it’s only now occurring to me that this entry might read more like a tie than a definitive selection — check out “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” before you totally write the band off. Otherwise? Crank up “Show Business” and prepare yourself for the breaks.
One could argue that ’92 was an even better year for music than ’91. Rage Against the Machine exploded into the world with their self-titled debut. Dr. Dre split from N.W.A. and minted his G-funk sound on The Chronic. Pavement simultaneously epitomized and took the piss out of indie rock on Slanted & Enchanted. Tom Waits made a comeback with Bone Machine. R.E.M. peaked with Automatic for the People. Pantera gave us a Vulgar Display of Power.
And yet, in spite of all that hallowed material, my selection was a no-brainer: Copper Blue marks the moment that a punk icon, Bob Mould, competed his metamorphosis from hardcore caterpillar to rock & roll butterfly. As much as I love Hüsker Dü, it’s common knowledge — at least for those who got the chance to see them live — that the studio albums could never match the ferocity of their live sound. At first this was just a matter of budget — both Zen Arcade and New Day Rising were made on a dime — but even signing to a major label (Warner Borthers) couldn’t do justice to a masterpiece like Flip Your Wig, which remained lo-fi and tinny even as the songwriting rose to new heights. The dissolution of the band gave Mould an opportunity to zig a little, going largely acoustic on 1989’s Workbook (another gem) before doubling down on the heaviness for Black Sheets of Rain a year later. Unfortunately the songs weren’t quite up to par, just as the production felt like a messy attempt at a heavier sound.
A cinematic experience. Kung Fu cinema, Voltron, Sleuth score. Live drum samples.
As rewarding as it is to hear a great band’s oeuvre in such a stripped-down context, what really sets Nirvana’s Unplugged performance over the edge are the covers: the Vaseline’s “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” a trio of Meat Puppets tunes backed by the Kirkwood brothers themselves, and — for the show-stopping finale — “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a traditional murder ballad popularized by Lead Belly in the ’40s. With these selections, Cobain & co. demonstrated a musical lexicon broader than that which most casual listeners would have picked up on, say, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And yet it’s all there: indie pop, glam, cowpunk, blues, only stripped of aesthetic signifiers and boiled down to their primal essence. This record showcases Cobain not as an idol, iconoclast, or tortured artist, but as a songwriter and student of song. Strip away the media narrative and thirty years of fan worship and all that other bullshit — what are you left with? The music itself, i.e. the real reason people still worship Nirvana.
A shimmer of white noise, then a procession of instruments — piano, electric guitar fed through a layer of distortion and what sounds like a Leslie rotor — all phasing in sync with the electronics. Then comes the first verse: a clearly sung vocal with an equally clear melody, an indication of what’s to come in the next 49 minutes. If I had to sum up why The Bends is my favorite Radiohead record (a controversial statement, to be sure) in a single sentence, I’d say it’s because this particular snapshot of the band sits comfortably between The Stone Roses and Blur in terms of sonic palette. The songs are probably too sophisticated to be called Britpop, but if OK Computer was to blow up that movement in the same way that Sgt. Pepper’s did the British Invasion, then this is the band’s Revolver. You can hear the band moving out of its comfort zone, toward the technological explorations that would give us Kid A come the turn of the millennium. That said, this is still in many ways a pop record. Here you have Radiohead working with big hooks as a format, a template, a set of tools — which is not to say that the record lacks heart or soul. Quite the opposite, in fact. These guys have always known how to mine whatever turf they’re working in for its maximum emotional effect; look no further than the one-two punch of “High & Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” for proof.
The Bends also sounds, for the most part, like a straight rock & roll record: the production prioritizes clarity over trickery, anchored by a killer drum sound — rivals Butch Vig and Dave Grohl’s wizardry on Nevermind for putting the listener in the room with the kit — and simple yet powerful guitar tones. Greenwood alternates between acoustic and electric throughout, often times multi-tracking both, but it’s the latter that brings the magic. I appreciate that the electric guitar ranks fairly low on Jonny Greenwood’s list of abilities and interests, but damn if it isn’t fun to hear him shred. His six-string freakouts drive the album’s heavier moments — the hard left turn from airy pop to distorted raga on “(Nice Dream)” or the psychedelic blues explosions of “Just” and prog-punk excursions of “My Iron Lung,” which is probably the closest to metal that Radiohead have or will ever come (never say never). The influences run the gamut from Beatles to Smiths to Television to Pixies, but it’s John Squire of the Stone Roses who looms largest over Greenwood’s playing — that technical specificity meets rhythmic looseness.
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)” has a cinematic vibe that foreshadows (or perhaps directly led to) “Exit Music (For a Film)” and later Greenwood’s film scores.